It's All About the Grants (Ulysses, That Is)
Maybe one day it really will be all about the Benjamins, but Mr. Franklin's face appears on the $100 bill, and today, we're talking $50s. Because after a couple of decades in which the U.S. banking industry appeared dead set on making the $20 bill pretty much the only form of currency widely available to Americans, the tide appears to be shifted toward General Ulysses S. Grant, he of the fifty.
More and more, I'm finding that however much I suck out of the ATM, the money comes out in as many fifties as can be included in my total withdrawal. Twenties were the currency of choice for so long that it's hard to remember that back in the Stone Age of ATMs--the 1970s--the machines dispensed $5s and $10s too. But banks gravitated toward $20s because it was safer and more convenient to stock ATMs with as much as possible of one denomination. If taxi drivers, convenience shops and gas stations didn't like the onslaught of $20s, that was just too bad.
Now it's the fifty's turn. With the average withdrawal from an ATM hovering at around $100, we're going to be seeing more and more $50s coming out of the machines. But that hasn't yet made the bigger bills any more acceptable to those retail industries that still deal in lots of cash. I've tried to use $50s lately at a car wash, restaurant, bar, dry cleaner and supermarket, and in each case, the cashier expressed some form of exasperation or suspicion--either checking to see if the bill was counterfeit by writing on it with a special pen (the Federal Reserve says that method is essentially useless), or rolling the eyes, or making a fuss about not having a compartment in the cash drawer for $50s.
American Bankers Association spokesman Don Rhodes said there's no nationwide trend toward dispensing $50s, but banks in more affluent areas, and in resort locales, do seem to bump up the currency. "From an anecdotal perspective, I would think that banks or other ATM providers would load their ATMs with cash combinations that would be most in demand by their customers," Rhodes said in reply to my questions. "There would be no incentive for a bank to put in $50 or $100 bills if their customers would not demand them. Therefore, I think loading machines with ... the standard $10 and $20 combination or with just $20s would still be the most common in most of the country. In high cost of living areas, such as New York, or resort areas, such as Aspen, that may be different."
Indeed, Rhodes said, he used an ATM in Aspen a few years ago, at the base of the Aspen Mountain lift, that dispensed only $100 bills. That's an extreme case, obviously, but an indicator that local economics play a role in what gets stocked.
(I was surprised to learn that those of us who do our banking through ATMs are not the majority; heck, we're not even the plurality. According to American Bankers Association stats, 32 percent of Americans still most often go into branches, 26 percent rely primarily on ATMs and an equal number do their banking mostly online.)
If banks are moving to the $50 as the standard currency, the private industry is a couple of steps ahead of the government. The folks down at Printing and Engraving still make vastly more twenties than fifties--there's about $115 billion in $20s floating around the country, versus $62 billion in $50s.
And fifties are so rarely used that they tend to last more than twice as long as any smaller denomination bill--each $50 bill lives an average of 4.6 years, compared to two years for a $20 and 1.3 years for a fiver (which is oddly the shortest-lived of our bills.)
Are you getting fifties from your local ATM? And if so, are you having any trouble getting shops and others to take the bills?
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